Sunday 14 June 2009
A photo of President Obama replaces one of George W. Bush at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Photo: AP)
There has been much chatter about who now speaks for the Republican Party and whether the GOP has a message or agenda to combat President Obama's popularity. Those questions are important to the party's future, but the most serious problem remains the deeper demographic and political forces at work in the country.
For the past few months, political analysts and demographers have been poring over the results of the 2008 election and comparing them with presidential results from the last two decades. From whatever angle of their approach - age, race, economic status, geography - they have come to a remarkably similar conclusion. Almost all indicators are pressing the Republicans into minority status.
Republicans are still capable of winning individual elections, but until they find a way to reverse or at least minimize these broader changes in the country, their chances of returning to majority status will be severely reduced.
The American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institute convened a stellar cast on Friday to review what has been learned since last November. The panel included Robert Lang of Virginia Tech, Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress, William Frey of the Brookings Institution, Bill Bishop, a Texas writer and author of "The Big Sort," Scott Keeter of the Pew Research, and Ronald Brownstein of Atlantic Media. They presented a wealth of data about what happened in 2008 and offered a series of conclusions that would alarm any Republican hopeful of a quick turnaround in the party's fortunes.
Democrats have now won the popular vote in four of the last five elections, though in one case (2000) they did not end up in the White House. In years when they have also won the electoral vote, Democrats have wracked up sizeable margins. Obama bested John McCain 365-173 and Bill Clinton's two victories were in the same range. George W. Bush's two electoral college victories were narrow; he won just 271 votes in the disputed election of 2000 and 286 in his 2004 reelection.
What has brought this about? It's not just one thing, it's everything. Start with the Democrats success in the suburbs. Lang's formula is that demography and density have combined to help the Democrats. The Democrats now dominate not just the cities but the urbanized suburbs that contained the largest share of the suburban population in America.
Democratic strength in the counties around Philadelphia, around Detroit and in Northern Virginia have squeezed Republicans dramatically. Increasingly, Republican strength outside the urban areas counts for less. "There's just not enough rural folks and small city people left in America in the key states that determine the electoral college to offset that difference," Lang said. "You're out of people."
That's one geographical reality. The other, which became acute after 2008, is that outside the South, Republicans are in trouble. John McCain won the South last November, but Obama swept the rest of the country by an even bigger margin. The same pattern holds now for House and Senate seats. Republicans may win governorships in Democratic-leaning states, as they have continued to do, but in congressional and presidential elections, the geographic divides are sizeable.
Brownstein reeled off list of statistics that all arrived at the same place: the South now accounts for a greater share of Republican strength than at virtually any time since its founding. That base is too narrow, as even Republicans know.
Demographically, the forces at work have chipped away at what was once a GOP-leaning majority in the country. The most important is the rising share of the vote accounted for by minorities. Whites accounted for just 76 percent of the overall electorate last November, down from 85 percent in 1988.
The last election saw more than two million additional African American voters, about two million more Hispanic voters and about one million more Asian American voters. All are groups where Obama increased the Democratic share of the vote over 2004. Frey estimated that there were nine states where minority voters made the difference in Obama's victory margin.
Republicans can't reverse the demographic trends; their only solution is to increase their share of the minority vote. Opposing Judge Sonya Sotomayor, Obama's Supreme Court nominee, because of her pride in being a Latina, won't help solve that problem.
There was much attention paid to Obama's trouble winning the votes of white working class voters. The bad news for Republicans is that these voters represent a declining share of the electorate. Since 1988, the white working class proportion of the national electorate has dropped by 15 percentage points. In Pennsylvania, Teixeira reported, it's declined by 25 percentage points. Teixeira reported that Obama actually won the votes of working class whites between ages 25 and 29, who at this point appear more culturally liberal than their elders.
As the working class vote shrinks, the college-educated vote increase, and Democrats are gaining a greater and greater share of these voters. Democrats lose white college graduates by 20 points in 1988 but by just four points last November. That is another big reason Democrats have gained strength in the suburbs.
Obama's strength among young voters was a staple of coverage throughout his bid for the White House, though as Keeter pointed out, he could have won last November without the votes of anyone under age 30. But his margin was the biggest in several decades and that alone should worry Republicans.
Obama may have special appeal to younger voters, but their shift toward the Democrats pre-dates his candidacy. "This really is not Obama," Keeter said. "Young voters were John Kerry's best age group. They were the Democratic candidates' best age group in the 2006 elections and they were the best age group for other Democratic candidates in 2008."
Younger voters are more diverse demographically than older voters. Only 62 percent in 2008 were white, compared to 74 percent eight years earlier. Projections show young voters will become increasingly diverse. They are also less religious and more culturally liberal, two indicators of Democratic support.
GOP strategist Mike Murphy described this in Time magazine as a coming Republican ice age. Republicans will need a major shift to begin to reverse these trends. That could start if there is a backlash against Obama's governance - and the president's agenda certainly will test the country's tolerance for a big dose of government. But Republicans will need to retool in other ways to make themselves more appealing to a changing population. That debate has barely begun.